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Grace Under Pressure: More Confident Dragons Try to Defy Playoff Odds

The Westports Malaysia Dragons entered their March 11 game against the Saigon Heat with the sole mindset of winning, as a loss would mean the end of the road for them in the 2016-17 ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) season.

Given the serious implications, one would expect the Dragons to come out of their locker rooms with seriousness, with a sense of urgency, and with their game faces on. World import Kiwi Gardner, though, was the exact opposite during pre-game shoot-around.

Even if he’s only 5-foot-7, one wouldn’t miss Gardner’s antics. He was all smiles, arms raised in the air while his head was banging and his body dancing to the songs blasting through the in-arena entertainment system inside the CIS Arena.

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It turns out the venue’s playlist contained most of the songs Gardner always listens to, but there’s also a bigger reason for his relaxed mood prior to tip-off.

“The mental preparation, right now, in a sense, it’s more important,” Gardner shared.

“The physical part, taking care of our bodies, getting shots up, we do that all year round. We know that as athletes. But the mental part right now is crucial. We have to prepare. It’s easy to say no pressure, but everybody understands the pressure of the game. Being mentally prepared, trusting our teammates, we are trying to play for something.”

Malaysia came off a 101-91 overtime win over Alab Pilipinas the weekend before, and they knew they needed much more of the mental toughness heading into another do-or-die battle.

“As much as we would like to say there is no pressure, everybody knows the severity of a win or a loss at this point of the season. The coaches are doing a great job not putting pressure on us, and making sure we understand the importance of each game, each shoot-around, each practice,” Gardner said.

“A lot of things can happen that we can’t control. But what we can control is our preparation. Not worrying about all other things going on around us and just focusing on getting wins.”

The Dragons always knew about their capabilities as basketball players, but they understand it’s also the mental aspect which could make or break them, considering they’re a bunch of players in their early or mid-20s.

When Gardner arrived mid-season, he took note of the Dragons’ roster composition, and believed from sheer instinct that his new squad was a capable group. But games are never played on paper, and he immediately realized what was missing.

“When I first got here, I tried to fathom the records. I’m like, we got a couple of 6-foot-7 guys who can shoot, our guards are not bad, we got some wings, I don’t know what the problem is. This team shouldn’t be a bottom of the pack team. It just didn’t seem like that. But when I played my first game, I’m like, where did it go?,” he recalled.

Confidence and mental toughness were some of the things that were lacking from the rebuilding team.

Those are also reasons why Gardner and other backcourt partner Joshua Munzon were brought to the Dragons while veteran Marcus Melvin was replaced: the team always believed they were just a good amount of time away from becoming a competitive unit.

“These are things they can do. They’ve been playing for a long time. It’s just the mental aspect. Believing in themselves. They might see an American guard and be intimidated, but that’s just another guard. You can do it,” Gardner said.

It was just a matter of identifying roles, putting it all together for four quarters, and doing it consistently each time.

Who would have thought that a month after Gardner’s initial game for the Dragons, the point guard would be the one in awe of the locals for their end-game heroics.

The Dragons held off the Heat, 94-81. They led by as much as 19 but they were pushed tremendously in the second half. Head coach Chris Thomas had been ejected in the third quarter, enabling the Heat to inch closer.

It was arguably the biggest test of the Dragons — who were also playing without locals Ivan Yeo and Loh Shee Fai — to date. The way they responded to close the game was living proof of how they’ve learned to perform with more maturity and confidence in pressure-packed situations.

“Every week, literally, from the first day I got here, it’s obvious improvements. It’s not even you have to be there to see. Just every game, you’ll see, these guys are playing better than last week, and now even better than the last week,” Gardner said of the Malaysia locals.

Wong Yi Hou and Kuek Tian Yuan finished the job for the Dragons in the fourth quarter where the team poured in 30 points. Wong scored eight of his 10 points in the final quarter. Kuek had 13 points, shooting 50% from deep.

“We hate to see anybody go down. Nonetheless, everytime somebody goes down, it’s an opportunity. Kuek, Yi Hou, these guys, everybody on the team is just doing a great job getting better and embracing the opportunity that they have. It’s fun to watch,” Gardner said, also citing the importance of the locals playing well for them.

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“We definitely have been patient with those guys. We only have three imports. Everybody else has four. What we’re telling these guys everyday is, you have to. We need you. You are very important. You can count yourself as an import. You have to take these shots. You have to make these plays. We need you to defend a premier scorer in the league. For Kuek to limit Lenny Daniel to 6-of-18 shooting and give him a tough time and not have it his way, that’s big time,” Gardner furthered.

“And we need that. We can’t win games without them. These guys are very valuable to our team. I feel we are one of the deepest teams in the league.”

“I couldn’t be prouder of this group. Kuek played great. Yi Hou, that and-one dunk… We always talk about picking each other up and doing things for each other,” Thomas added.

“I shouldn’t have put myself in that position (being ejected). Boy did the guys pick up for me. Our local kids dominated their match-ups. That’s all you can ask for. That’s a constant thing for us. When our locals play well, we always play well. We stay in the game.”

When the Dragons opened the season shifting to a developmental approach after the loss of key players from last year, they were a group that was uncertain if they could put up a fight against the opposition.

Months later, the same group of guys are a bunch of confident, mature, and tough-as-nails individuals believing in each other, and unfazed by any challenge from the rest of the field.

Thanks to countless hours of hard work and buying into the process, the Dragons have made the race to the ABL playoffs even more interesting towards the tail-end of the regular season.

“We’re still alive and that’s what we are fighting for. Regardless, we still have to play two games against the Truth. Whether we won or lost (versus Saigon), we have to play those two games what we don’t want to do is play meaningless games, we don’t go through five days of practice knowing we have nothing to play for. That was enough motivation for us to keep us pushing,” Gardner closed.

There’s certainly no backing down now.